Book Review: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’

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Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” gathered a cult following after its initial publication in 1999, but with the release of a film version including stars Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller, the novel rocketed up the New York Times Bestseller List over 10 years after it was first published.

The novel appeals primarily to teens with the protagonist, Charlie, stumbling through his freshman year of high school, dealing with his difficult family and experiencing his first crush. But the novel quickly takes on some darker themes that leave parents and teachers uneasy. Despite its undeniable popularity among adolescents, it has appeared six times on the American Library Association’s list of 10 most-frequently-challenged books because its explicit nature leaves library staff and school officials cringing at the idea of having it on their shelves for all to read. Throughout the novel, Charlie and his newfound group of friends drink brandy, smoke cigarettes, takes hits off a bong and have sex. Charlie’s friend Patrick, who is openly gay, visits a park where homosexual men rendezvous to have anonymous sex. Charlie’s older sister is in a physically abusive relationship, and when she becomes pregnant, she has Charlie drive her to an abortion clinic. The story also deals with characters, including Charlie and his best friend Sam, who were sexually abused growing up. But that aspect is handled quite delicately. It never came across as being there for shock value. And it is not explicitly described. Instead, the presence of this dark secret lingers subtly beneath the surface of the story. We know from the beginning that Charlie struggles with relationships, feels isolated and has spent some time in a mental hospital. Not until the end though do we find out why. As a child, Charlie was sexually abused. And in his case, the perpetrator was a woman. The fact that some young boys are molested by women is not often addressed. Sexual abuse of young girls by men is talked about much more often and is less stigmatized. "Men who were sexually abused by women rarely see their reality reflected in articles, books, services and web sites that are created for sexual abuse survivors,” said psychotherapist Kali Munro on her web site for sexual abuse survivors. “The fact that it is not widely acknowledged or accepted that boys as well as girls are sexually abused, and women as well as men sexually abuse children is damaging to men who were abused by women. Many male survivors live in isolation, fear, shame, anger and silence precisely because they know the taboos in our culture about talking about this form of abuse.” I admire the fact that this novel deals with an issue that is often ignored. And the way those passages were written never made me feel uncomfortable. I thought Charlie was an endearing protagonist. The novel is in epistolary form, and Charlie’s first-person voice has a distinct, charming ring to it. He tells life like it is. His words are simple and childlike, but some of his ideas are very profound. He is both sensitive and observant. But he can be tough when he needs to be, saving Patrick from bullies at one point. Charlie develops a crush on Sam, who is at the core of his new group of friends along with her flamboyant stepbrother Patrick. Sam and Patrick form a dynamic sibling duo and take Charlie under their wing.  Their characters are the loveable, friendly, open-minded highschoolers every left-out kid dreams of. They include Charlie in their well-established friend group of upperclassmen and guide him through the difficult journey of freshman year with love, humor and understanding. Since “The Perks of being a Wallflower” is a coming-of-age novel, it is not particularly plot driven, but rather driven more by character and theme. If the protagonist has a goal, it is simply to survive freshman year and maybe emerge with some sense of belonging. But Charlie does change throughout the novel as he works to “participate” more in life rather than observing it go by. And themes such as the consequences of deception and the way guilt eats away at people are skillfully woven throughout. As far as weaknesses, “The Perks of being a Wallflower” isn’t exactly action packed. In fact, besides awkward family gatherings, feuds among friends and a bad LSD trip, not much happens. But then again that’s true of most coming-of-age novels. I chose to read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” because one of my favorite movies is based on it, but I found the novel to be less enthralling. I don’t mean that as an insult to the author but rather as a compliment to those who made the film. Even without much action, the aesthetic beauty of the camera shots and the talent of the actors kept my eyes glued to the screen. However, the novel provoked a lot of thought for me and was still well worth the time spent reading it. I was inspired by the way Charlie, regardless of the trials happening in his own life, always shows empathy to those around him, takes an interest in other people and learns to live in the moment. Also, some quotes in the novel seemed so true and provoking that I immediately wanted to copy them onto Post-It notes. In one of my favorite quotes a teacher tells Charlie to stop using his vibrant thought life to avoid participating in real life with those around him. And I think that’s essentially what the novel is about—the need we all have for true meaningful human connection. Charlie’s life improves immensely once he stops isolating himself and develops meaningful friendships. With that said, perhaps people should overlook some of the objectionable content of the novel—it is not glorified by any means—and look at the deeper messages such as the harm of gender stereotypes, the importance of empathy, the need to live in the moment and the importance of being connected to other people. It may not be as engaging as the movie, but I think this novel is still well worth a close read.
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